Big Grant Funding Awarded to Tiniest, Mightiest Building Material of the Future

The Forest Products Laboratory is pleased to announce the littlest big news that could help change how we fabricate the world around us.

CN-enhanced concrete looks and acts like traditional concrete but is much stronger. Photo by Michael Goergen, U.S. Endowment.

USDA Forest Service Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) in collaboration with P3Nano from the US Endowment for Forests and Communities(U.S. Endowment) announced ten awards this month for projects ranging from one to five years, totaling $2.4 million in grants to further nanocellulose research.

The partnership funds research to evaluate the safety of cellulosic nanomaterials (CNs), develop process improvements to reduce production cost, and provide new market opportunities for advanced applications. Everything from biodegradable snack packaging to concrete additives that significantly reduce CO2 emissions are possible with CN innovation.

A thermoformed cup produced from polylactic acid-cellulose nanocrystal material at Michigan State University.

“This public-private partnership continues to invest in innovation. We are using the fundamental building blocks of trees to create a lower carbon future with next-generation products that provide significant value in new markets where forest products haven’t always been considered a material of choice,” said Michael Goergen, Vice President and Innovation Director for P3Nano. “Cellulosic nanomaterials are providing new markets for forest products, while helping multiple industries solve performance, cost and environmental challenges.”

P3Nano grants are transitioning CN technologies to the commercial market, where they will launch new sustainable industries. More than $20 million in funding from P3Nano’s public-private partnership is working to trailblaze a path toward commercialization for CNs.

What make CNs most compelling as a “green” fabrication material is that they have all the advantages of carbon and other nano materials (huge surface area, super strength and stiffness) but are renewable because they quite literally grow on trees.

But wait—

What exactly is cellulose nanomaterials? And seriously, what’s with all the names and acronyms, like cellulosic nanomaterials (CNs), microfibrillated cellulose (MFC), cellulose nanocrystals (CNCs), nanocrystals of cellulose (NCC), etc.?

First, let’s address the names and acronyms. They are often confusing and complicated for new readers to the cellulosic nanomaterials world. To keep it simple, nanocellulose and cellulosic nanomaterials (CNs) are blanket terms that describe many different cellulosic particles that are all smaller than 100 nanometers, or less than 1000th the thickness of a human hair. The materials they make have similar but slightly different chemical and mechanical properties based on how they are processed. Different nanocellulosic particles work better for specific products being made with them. Think of chewing gum, there are a lot of varieties, flavors, and consistencies but they all are similar.

So now, what is nanocellulose?

Let’s begin with cellulose. It is an organic material found in trees, woody plants, and vegetation (it’s found other places too but let’s stick with plants). Cellulose is the tough fiber that helps to keep the structure of plant cell walls, well—structured. Researchers often refer to cellulose as a biopolymer. A polymer is a long chain of molecules that can be tangled together to make tough, stretchy materials. Many of the polymers we are familiar with are petrochemicals made from oil, like Nylon®, polyethylene, and polyester petroleum and can be found in anything from the cell phone at your ear to construction materials to automotive parts to toys and grocery bags. As useful as these man made polymers are, they have a critical flaw—they take thousands of years to breakdown so they are filling our landfills, road sides and oceans with trash. Biopolymers are polymers that grow naturally in animals and plants, and they do tend to break down in the environment because microbes love to eat them. Natural rubber, collagen, starch, DNA, and even gum are all examples of biopolymers. But, as the most abundant biopolymer on the planet, cellulose is renewable, biodegradable, and has massive sustainability potential.  

The tiny fibers of nanocellulose under a microscope. Photo by USDA Forest Service.

And nanocellulose is made by breaking renewable wood (or plant) fibers down to nano-scale rods and filaments. These fiber strands are a thousand times thinner than human hair but are stronger and lighter than steel. In addition to their mechanical properties, CNs can be produced sustainably, have low environmental impact, are biodegradable, and do double-duty by sequestering carbon.

A visiting scholar at FPL loading a kinetic mixer with a slurry of cellulose nanomaterials, water, and polymer powder. USDA Forest Service photo by Ron Sabo.

Adding CNs to existing products, like concrete or plastic, can reduce carbon emissions because nanocellulose has been shown to make materials and products perform better, so less of the material is needed to do the same job. Cement, an ingredient of concrete, is the third largest industrial source of green house gases. Reducing the global amount of carbon and fossil fuels produced and needed in products can have big, positive environmental impacts in the fight to stop climate change.

Many CN products are already being constructed, or proto-typed, or are in use today.

A bridge in California being constructed from cellulose nanocrystal-infused concrete. Photo by Michael Goergen, U.S. Endowment.
A cellulose nanofibril computer chip rests on a leaf. Photo by Yei Hwan Jung, Wisconsin Nano Engineering Device Laboratory.
Associate Professor Xudong Wang of UW-Madison holds a prototype of his energy-harvesting technology, which uses a blend of wood pulp and cellulose nanofibers. The technology could be incorporated into flooring and convert footsteps on the flooring into usable electricity. Photo by Stephanie Precourt, UW-Madison.

Since 2013 the U.S. Endowment and the Forest Products Laboratory have partnered through the P3Nano project to innovate and commercialize CNs. Kenneth Zwick, FPL Assistant Director, is thrilled about the potential of the new projects that are being supported through this new grant program. Some project highlights include the following:

Dr. Kim Nelson and Dr. Lewis Tunnicliffe launch the co-developed Nanocellulose Dispersion Composite™ (NDC) for pre-commercial qualification by the tire and rubber industry at Tire Technology Expo 2020 in Hannover, Germany. Photo by Dr. Kim Nelson.
  • From Trees to Tires: Two U.S.-based companies are replacing carbon black in tires with natural, renewable cellulose. They have found that adding 5 percent cellulosic nanomaterials to tires can reduce rolling resistance and improve gas milage by 5 percent.  
  • Frost Protection of Tree Fruits: Spraying a 2-percent solution of cellulose nano fibrils in water on apple and cherry blossoms can help protect them from frost. This novel protection approach uses less energy and is more effective than traditional methods. This innovation saves valuable crops from what could be devastating and unpredictable losses, thus providing economic security to rural farmers, while keeping U.S. fruits flowing to consumers.
Cross sections of sweet cherry live flower buds (left) and cold damaged flower buds (right). Photo by Dr. Zhang, WSU, Sappi.
Spraying plant-based dispersion (PBD) by electrostatic sprayer in a cherry orchard. Photo by Dr. Zhang, WSU, Sappi.
  • Making Oil Drilling Cleaner: TigerBullets is a wood- and plastic-based drilling fluid additive that seals cracks in bore hole walls to reduce drilling fluid loss and groundwater contamination. Adding 2- to 3- percent cellulose nano fibrils to this fully biodegradable drilling fluid additive improves drilling fluid performance and plugs cracks more effectively.
University of Maine CNF, Cellulose nanomaterials (left), commercial drilling fluid and densified fluid additive containing CNF material (middle), densified lost circulation control material made of wood particles, cellulose nanomaterials and other biopolymers (right). Photo by U of Maine.
Cellulose nanomaterial is used for rheology and filtration control of drilling fluids in the energy industry. Photo used by permission of ACS Publications. Originally published in:
https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acssuschemeng.0c02774. Photo permission should be directed through ACS.

These CN products could also open the door for economic opportunities in rural America by creating a new industry to sustainably harvest and transform wood, low-value wood products, and agricultural waste into high-value nano materials.

Moreover, CNs can be sourced from what is considered waste materials. For example, nanocellulose can be produced from low-value materials thinned from overgrown forests, leftover agricultural products or woody debris.

CN has unlimited potential to revolutionize material design in sustainable manufacturing and be a game-changer in the race to a greener future.  

“Our public-private partnership model with the U.S. Endowment demonstrates how we can quickly move new discoveries from the lab into new applications and to commercialization. Doing so helps create more sustainable products and businesses using wood, an abundant renewable resource,” said Forest Products Laboratory Director Dr. Cynthia West.

So how little does a tree have to be to make a big difference on a global scale?

Literally—nano-sized.

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Read the USDA Forest Service News Release at Forest Products Laboratory Announce Grants with U.S. Endowment for Forests and Communities | US Forest Service (usda.gov)

To find out more about the extraordinary contributions our researchers are making to the world of wood science, please visit the Forest Products Laboratory at https://www.fpl.fs.fed.us/ 

Contact us about this research or any of our other incredible projects at https://www.fpl.fs.fed.us/news/mediacontacts/index.php